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The Poverty of Low Expectations

There is a peculiar, if predictable, malaise that afflicts many African postcolonial societies and the mindsets of institutions and individuals: an unsettling sensation of being less than, combined with a desperate yearning to become like them—the former colonial masters—that generates perpetual mimicry and underperformance. This is what underscores the imperatives of existential, epistemic, and economic decolonization.

I commented in an earlier reflection on USIU-Africa’s duality, as a Kenyan and an American university, which is as seductive as it is debilitating, a source of both innovation and inertia. It engenders a perpetual search for a cohesive identity, a precarious institutional culture characterized by uneven expectations, the warring demands of Africanness and Americanness, in which their respective perils, rather than their possibilities, tend to be accentuated.

I frequently encountered and countered the proverbial “African time” by participants and invited speakers turning up late at campus meetings and events, and students complaining about lecturers who came late to class or not at all. I was often surprised by the poor quality of annual reports from some departments and divisions, and delays in the work of several institutional committees and projects. The University Council didn’t acquit itself well either: its committee meetings were often cancelled due to lack of quorum, and in many meetings, it was clear to management that some members had not read the reports we painstakingly prepared.

I repeatedly made it known that I valued timeliness, rigorous standards, robust deliberations, and adherence to high expectations, ethical behavior, and exceptional performance. It was gratifying to see some met the demands of institutional excellence, but many others did not. As is often the case, the laggards were the loudest complainants, who sought to fuel a culture of intolerance, incivility, and illiberalism that reflected the dysfunctions of the larger national polity.

At stake was a battle against the culture of mediocrity evident in all manner of spaces and organizations. The brilliant, young Kenyan journalist, Larry Madowo, incisively captured the culture of low expectations in an article in The Daily Nation of November 15, 2016, titled “Why do Kenyans accept such low standards in everything?” He called it “the at least mindset.”  It is worth quoting at some length.

“This ‘at least’ mindset Kenyans have is just an apology for low standards…. When we are surprised that anything begins on time, we unconsciously allow the organizers of future events to be tardy because we’ve already made it acceptable. We are not outraged when a notorious politician does objectively horrible things because “at least” he cares for the people.

We make excuses for bad behavior because “at least” they haven’t killed anyone. We make excuses for grand corruption even in the face of incontrovertible evidence because the other side is just as bad…

When you criticize anything in Kenya, there is never a shortage of people who will tell you to be positive and stop being so pessimistic. The argument is always that “at least” something is being done.

We accept bare minimums when we are entitled to so much more. Optimism cannot, and should, not be a substitute for a solid critique… You can’t build a merit-based society if any effort demands to be applauded, however little. We scrape the bottom of the barrel so many times, come up with almost nothing and are still pleased that ‘at least’ it’s not entirely empty.”

The following year, in his commencement address at USIU-Africa, the Chief Executive Officer of the Commission for University Education (CUE), Dr. Mwenda Ntarangwi, quoted Madowo’s article above. He implored the graduating students to eschew the “at least mindset.” “Does patriotism mean accepting low standards?” he asked. “Should it not be the other way round, that patriotism means we love this nation so much that we accept nothing but the best from it and that we also give it the best? As you leave here today let me ask you to please change this culture of ‘at least’ and model and expect excellence in all that you do.”

I was troubled by the culture of authoritarianism and discretionary decision making I found, in which the vice chancellor made all decisions even on petty matters. I commented in previous reflections on the debilitating cultures of xenophobia, sexism, and unethical research practices.

The Seductions and Sanctions of Ethnicity

The biggest elephant in the room was ethnic chauvinism, dubbed “tribalism”, a colonial construct that reduces Africans to members of atavistic “tribes.” It is a sad commentary on the endurance of colonial civilizational conceits that many in Kenya and elsewhere on the continent uncritically embrace the term “tribe” for their ethnic groups or nations. I told my students not to use it in my classes for its racist origins and offensiveness to describe African identities that elsewhere are dignified by terms such as ethnicity or nationality and are not mutilated by suffix “tribe” after the name. Who would describe an Englishman or Englishwoman a member of the English tribe?

There is a large literature on the colonial invention of “traditions” and “tribes” that many contemporary Africans swear by to invoke some imaginary precolonial cultural authenticity. A distinction is often made between moral ethnicity (ethnicity as a sociocultural identity) and political ethnicity (ethnicity as a political ideology). As an identity ethnicity is not the problem, it acquires its disruptive poison through political mobilization in contestations for power and privileges.

Such is the pervasive and perverse conceit in constructions of cultural and political hierarchies that the marshaling of ethnic identities in national and institutional life is seen as an African pathology. Yet, in the United States and other multicultural societies in the global North ethnicity is substituted by race. As the Trump presidency made it abundantly clear to those who had drank the kool-aid about American democracy, white supremacy is alive and well. Racist politicians routinely mobilize racial difference for the lethal concoction of discrimination, inequality, and disenfranchisement for racialized minorities. As the latter grow, political revanchism escalates, as evident in Trump’s and post-Trump America.

In an online essay posted in late December 2007, written during Kenya’s descent into the abyss of post-election violence, titled “Holding a nation hostage to a bankrupt political class,” I commented on the destructiveness of the country’s politicization of ethnicity. So, I was not surprised by the distractive and disruptive power of ethnicism when I was vice chancellor at USIU-Africa.

As is the case at the national level, the politics of ethnicity at the university reared its ugly head over appointments, promotion, and representation. The higher the position the more fraught the internal contestations and grandstanding. One of the most contentious was for the appointment of an acting Deputy Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs. Two substantive appointments had turned down the offer.

A cabal from one ethnic group held secret meetings to push the candidacy of one of their own, who had applied but was rejected by the search committee that included members of the faculty, staff, student, and university councils, as well as some members of management and the deans’ committee. An influential member of the University Council pushed for his own favorite candidate who was not qualified for the position.

Fortunately, the appointment of the DVC and other members of management was my prerogative as vice chancellor based on recommendations from the search committees. I used the appointment of the vice chancellor as a template in which as candidates we went through various stages concluded by on campus meetings with several groups of the university community. This search was novel in Kenya but common in the United States where I relocated from.

Management and I instituted a transparent process of appointments and promotions for senior administrative and academic positions. As I noted in an earlier reflection, each academic department and school formed an appointment and promotion committee. For heads of key administrative departments, management interviewed the candidates as well.

In 2018-2019, we embarked on a staff redeployment exercise in which about three dozen people were transferred to other departments. Human resource experts recommend such periodic redeployments as an effective tool of talent retention and management. It helps re-energize employees by offering them an opportunity to learn new skills and even assume higher positions and saves employers the high costs of redundancies and recruitment of new employees.

In our case, through the Tuition Waiver Program many employees had earned bachelor’s or master’s degrees ill-suited for the positions they occupied. Management was also keen to break the ethnic enclaves that had emerged over the years in various administrative divisions and departments that were often dominated by members from one or a couple of ethnic groups.

This was initially met with some resistance, but many of the individuals involved increasingly expressed satisfaction with their redeployment. We manage to loosen the stranglehold of ethnic cabals, but they were by no means broken. The ethnic chauvinists looked for every opportunity to attack members of management. Revealingly, they focused their ire on the highly accomplished and effective women in management who were in their early 40s. In my case, this was overlaid by xenophobia, which underscores the fact that layers of bigotry cascade and overlap.

The Blinkered External Gaze

Despite popular mythology, universities have never been ivory towers splendidly isolated from their societies and the wider world. Their values, missions, and institutional cultures reflect their times and locations. The few colonial universities that were established in Africa sought to reproduce the colonial order, while the explosion of universities after independence reflected the expansive dreams of development. Similarly, in the United States it is now widely acknowledged that many of the country’s most prestigious universities were built with enslaved labor, or benefitted from the proceeds of slavery, and laid the intellectual and ideological foundations of American racism.

Prior to my time as vice chancellor, I had written extensively on the entangled, complex, and conflicted relationship between African universities and various external stakeholders. The honeymoon of the early post-independence years wilted as the drive for Africanization or indigenization of the public service was achieved, and as the unforgiving conditionalities of structural adjustment programs (SAPs) imposed with fundamentalist zeal by the international financial institutions wrecked African economies and tore asunder the independence social contract.

At a conference of African vice chancellors in 1986, the World Bank baldly declared the continent didn’t need universities; some architects of the Washington Consensus had discovered social rates of return were higher for primary than higher education, voilà! Beleaguered African states facing mounting struggles for the “second independence” arising out of the collapse of the nationalist promises of development and democracy, often led by workers, the youth and university students, were only too happy to dismantle universities as viable spaces of critical knowledge production. So, began the slide towards underfunding at the same time as the number of universities expanded to meet rising demand.

By the time I joined USIU-Africa in January 2016, the hand of the state over the higher education sector had loosened considerably. The president of the republic was no longer chancellor of all the public universities. Regulatory authority rested on an increasingly professional agency, CUE. Private universities were allowed to operate, although doubts about their quality lingered in the public mind and among their alumni as I observed. Moreover, as we experienced at USIU-Africa, the Kenyan regulator was more authoritarian than our American regulator, although that began to change under Dr. Mwenda’s leadership.

Institutional leaders on my campus including members of top governance organs had drunk deep in the autocratic well of the one party state, now overlaid by often misguided corporatist injunctions for profitability and efficiency. Above all, the levels of public funding per student continued to decline, which left many public universities virtually bankrupt when the pipeline of privately sponsored students dried up from 2017.

As I noted in an earlier reflection, the private sector and the rapidly growing class of high net worth individuals did not pick up the slack. Some of Africa’s wealthiest people gladly make generous contributions to exceedingly wealthy universities in the global North rather than those in their own countries. This is not surprising given the fact that these elites send their children to the global North. It’s a vote of no confidence in the academic worth of their local universities, where many of them received their education before the ravages of SAPs.

There’s a long tradition, crystallized in Frantz Fanon’s trenchant critique, The Wretched of the Earth, of depicting African elites as a comparator bourgeoisie, as the least patriotic among their global counterparts. In a paper titled “African Universities and the Production of Elites” delivered at a conference on African elites organized by the University of Toronto in January 2021, I argued for a more nuanced understanding and differentiation of African elites.

However, the fact remains they are the source of the huge illicit outflows of capital from the continent, estimated at $60 billion in 2016 by the UN Economic Commission for Africa High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows from Africa.“This is twice the amount of money flowing in as aid annually. Often, money leaving developing countries illicitly ends up right back in banks in Europe and the U.S.”

Our interest as management in engaging the private sector went beyond financial resources. I’ve long believed principled and mutually beneficial partnerships between universities and business are essential for two other reasons. First, in so far as research and development (R&D) is essential not only for national economic development, an area in which Africa performs abysmally (accounting for a mere 1.0% of global R&D), it is imperative for the growth and competitiveness of African business. The multinational corporations they compete with conduct the bulk of their R&D in their home countries often in collaboration with their research universities. How many African businesses conduct R&D, let alone in partnership with their local universities?

Second, universities are valued by society for their capacity to produce high quality human capital. Historically, business has invested in buying talent, rather than building talent. On their part, universities pride themselves as oases of advanced knowledges production and critical contemplation unsullied by the vocational preoccupations of lesser tertiary institutions. This incongruity in expectations has sometimes resulted in mismatches between university graduates and the needs of the economy and labor market.

In much of Africa, graduate unemployment and underemployment is higher than for those with lower levels of education. In East Africa, according to a story by Gilbert Nganga in University World News of June 2020, 2018, a study by the Inter-University Council of East Africa “shows that Uganda has the worst record, with at least 63% of graduates found to lack job market skills. It is followed closely by Tanzania, where 61% of graduates were ill prepared. In Burundi and Rwanda, 55% and 52% of graduates respectively were perceived to not be competent. In Kenya, 51% of graduates were believed to be unfit for jobs.”

In 2016, the British Council produced a report, Universities, Employability and Inclusive Development covering Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, which our management team found quite alarming as USIU-Africa was ranked lower than its competitors for the employability of its graduates. It prompted us to commission an internal study on the subject. The team consulted existing research and literature, gathered extensive data on the global, regional, and local contexts, carried out a survey of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and employers, and made several recommendations.

They found that employers expected technical, subject, and soft skills. Among the soft skills valued in the current job market, the following stood out: communication and interpersonal skills, problem solving skills, using own initiative and being self-motivated, working under pressure, organizational skills, teamwork, ability to learn, numeracy, valuing diversity and cultural differences, and negotiation skills. For the future, employers identified the skills that would become more critical included the following: literacies in various media, scientific literacy, ICT literacy, financial literacy, curiosity, persistence and grit, adaptability, service orientation, leadership, and social awareness.

Following the survey, the university enhanced its support systems for student employability preparedness. Existing programs for life and soft skills training were strengthened or new ones established. This included reforming general education, improving career training and job fairs, internships, and community service, and creating youth boot camps. The university also sought to infuse innovation and entrepreneurship in its academic curricula and extra-curricular activities by setting up an incubation and innovation center and introducing an assessment system for extra-curricular activities.

Also, we worked hard to enhance partnerships with the private sector, both international and local companies. We enjoyed modest success. Examples include the establishment of an apprenticeship and innovation program by a major local company, an AppFactory by Microsoft, the only one then in Kenya and 14th on the continent. We soon established a presence as an institution that was serious about employability that enabled us to attract the African Development Bank to select our university as one of four for a coding center of excellence and win a competitive bid by the World Bank to provide employability training for more than 30,000 young people in six counties.

As gratifying as these efforts were, it rankled that we failed to attract local companies to support research including those owned or run by members of our own board and council. Similarly, as I noted in a previous reflection, we were unable to crack the door to philanthropic giving from high net worth individuals locally.

Together with the Director of University Advancement and some members of his team we also put considerable efforts to forge partnerships with several embassies from the G20 countries and others that had sizable numbers of students at the university. We were able to secure funding from the US Embassy in Nairobi to establish a state of the art social media lab that produced highly regarded reports on the social media landscape in Kenya. Two of our most entrepreneurial faculty members got a multi-million dollar grant from USAID jointly with an American university for a project on youth employability and empowerment.

Management also put efforts in building external partnerships abroad. For example, the Director of University Advancement and I undertook a six week partnerships development and fundraising trip to the USA between April and May 2018. The trip presented an opportunity to promote the interests of the university to numerous constituencies including universities and research associations, foundations, our alumni, Kenyan and African diaspora communities, government agencies, private corporations, individuals, and potential friends. The visit covered 10 cities namely, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, New York City, Washington DC, Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, and Detroit. Nearly 90 engagements took place.

We returned with four main takeaways that were summarized in a detailed report shared with the university’s academic and administrative leaders. First, we found a strong desire to engage with Africa in general, and African universities. Second, USIU-Africa enjoyed a strategic advantage because of its dual accreditation in Kenya and the USA. Third, we noted that all the universities we visited both big and small, research intensive and teaching oriented, were almost invariably better resourced than we were, and they seemed to have stronger cultures and systems of governance, management, and fundraising that provided us opportunities to reimagine our future. Finally, we were often urged by our interlocutors to actively engage American companies and organizations based in Kenya.

In the report we noted that to take full advantage of the partnership and fundraising opportunities we had cultivated it was imperative we needed to build our capacities, raise our visibility and value as a partner institution. First, we needed to strengthen the capacity of the Advancement division in terms of personnel, skills, and IT infrastructure.

Second, the establishment of an office of Global Affairs led by a senior academic with extensive private and public sector experience was essential to shepherd and oversee international academic partnerships. Third, in many of our conversations it became clear that we could position USIU-Africa as a research and policy hub in East Africa in collaboration with American institutions by establishing specialized institutes and centers that they could partner with and support.

Finally, it was necessary to review and strengthen our systems and processes to make them more effective for international engagements. Specifically, we needed to expand student accommodation to attract more foreign students. During the trip we repeatedly heard complaints about the slowness with which African institutions conduct business including responding to basic communication, negotiations and signing of MoUs, following up on agreements, and where necessary timely reporting on resource utilization.

We urged the divisions and the schools to work closely with University Advancement to pursue the various opportunities the trip had opened. Save for a few inter-institutional partnerships that were established, by the time the Covid-19 pandemic broke out there was little follow up.

Some would say there were “at least” some follow ups. In my book that was not good enough.